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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 12:05 am

City stumbles to homeless shelter

Despite appearances, the Springfield City Council’s Tuesday vote to build a homeless center in a black neighborhood, with the 8-2 vote on racial lines, wasn’t a racial issue.

Just ask aldermen. Nope, just a neighborhood NIMBY deal, council members declared after rescuing their own wards from the prospect of solving the city’s homeless issue by putting the destitute in someone else’s backyard.

It was, easily, one of the most depressing public gatherings I’ve witnessed since coming to Springfield nearly 15 years ago. Nearly everything bad about our town – from weak political leadership to powerful economic forces imposing their will – was on full display. After the vote, aldermen, and the mayor, sounded like crybabies, even though the vote went down just as everyone figured, with a 130-bed homeless shelter, plus a drunk tank, plus a place for the drug-addled to sort themselves out, plus treatment for the mentally ill who now wander streets, slated for a neighborhood that’s already putting up with too much.

Let’s start with Mayor Jim “Undecided” Langfelder, who rightly earned wrath by turning Hamlet when the going got tough. His first mistake was putting the city’s economic development director in charge of finding a site. That reeks of “let’s get this mess out of places with promise.” Langfelder’s second flub was pretending he had nothing to do with the plan, it was a brainchild of employees whom he apparently allows to come up with flaky ideas for which they are not held accountable. Until minutes before the final vote, and even then, the mayor sounded as engaged as a bride of Frankenstein, someone knotted to a monster he doesn’t truly understand or love.

“We can’t govern like that,” Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner observed.

Minutes after apologizing for not consulting with the NAACP before unveiling this mess, Langfelder declared that the city needs healing. Then he pulled a third-party race card, or perhaps it was simply a classic Springfield power play. “Ed Curtis came up to me and said, ‘We’re out, because we didn’t want it to drop down on racial lines and Helping Hands,’” Langfelder told the council after the vote. As head of Memorial Medical Center that promises to provide services at the new homeless shelter, Curtis was paid more than $2.7 million in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available, and runs an outfit that includes some of Springfield’s richest and most powerful players on its various boards of directors – Memorial has more than one.

If nothing else, the mayor’s remark underscored who really makes decisions in Springfield: If wealthy white folks balk, it won’t happen. Included on Memorial Medical Center’s board of directors is Nina Harris, executive director of the Springfield Urban League, which proved the joker in this deck. The Urban League, which runs a Head Start program less than 100 feet from the site, didn’t say boo about the proposal until it was too late. A week before the vote, the Urban League told parents that Head Start is set to move. On Tuesday, Howard Peters, Urban League attorney, told the council that the notice to parents was wrong: Head Start will stay. He also told the council that Harris hadn’t emerged from whatever foxhole she’s in because she’s busy and travels a lot. Whatever. If I had a vote, Peters would win best supporting actor.

Aldermen protested how unfair this was, how robo calls were lies and that a billboard lambasting the plan was over the top. “I could not believe how dirty this campaign was,” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer thundered. Anyone who’s been around politics has seen dirtier. Opponents fought the only way they knew how, the way they’ve seen others fight, the way Knute Rockne would have played it. What should they have done, bent over and said “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory, who represents the neighborhood and just recently joined the council, wasn’t ready for prime time. He struggled to get words out before the vote, finally asking colleagues to postpone the matter for 30 days. He lost, with Turner the only other vote in favor of delay. Afterward, Turner did Gregory no favors as she blasted Langfelder for his lack of leadership.

“Mayor, I think that you created a situation that put a three-week-old alderman in a terrible, terrible situation that he was not prepared to deal with,” Turner said. “Not because he’s not intelligent enough, he simply was not prepared to deal with it. … The good news is, he will grow from it and become a very good alderman because of it.”

Ouch. Gregory remained silent while Turner said he wasn’t ready. Afterward, he wasn’t definitive when asked whether he was prepared. He should have been, because we’ve all seen this show before. 

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